LONDON — There aren’t a lot of clothing retailers like Boden left in Britain: Founded in 1991 as a mail-order catalogue by Johnnie Boden — who remains owner and creative director — the company has evolved into an omnichannel business that’s profitable, growing, debt-free — and fiercely independent.
Known for its colorful, upbeat collections of women’s, men’s and children’s wear, Boden saw sales climb 13 percent to 347.1 million pounds in 2017, with pretax profits hitting 27.3 million pounds. Defying the fashion retail downturn in the U.K., Boden expects to have grown by 10 percent for 2018 because of an expanding customer base, a snappier women’s wear offer and sales across some 60 countries.
Earlier this year, the brand chose Nordstrom as its first U.S. retail partner and now sells through 50 of the department store operator’s doors. Over the past two years, Boden has also opened its first brick-and-mortar stores, on the King’s Road in London and at Westfield London.
Johnnie Boden — jolly, posh and utterly charming — is an Oxford graduate who worked — unhappily — as a stockbroker in the City of London before launching his catalogue with eight men’s wear products. A married father of three, he genuinely loves his job and has no desire to sell out, retire — or gobble up his competitors.
“Although I am quite greedy, I am not that greedy,” he says during an interview at Boden’s bright, sprawling headquarters in west London. “I never wanted the yacht. A lot of people sell out because they want this great big toy. On a more mundane level, there really is nothing I would rather do.”
Here, Boden talks about his approach to retail and design, his American dream and concerns about an (increasingly likely) no-deal Brexit.
WWD: Why did you start Boden?
Johnnie Boden: The inspiration came from America because I had worked there and saw the success of brands like J. Crew and L.L. Bean. It didn’t exist in the U.K., so that was the model, to copy the success of those niche businesses in the U.K. Quite coincidently, Land’s End launched in the U.K., as did Racing Green and so I could piggyback on their awareness. I also wanted to make Boden different, so I called it by my own name. The catalogue was very copy-heavy in the beginning — it was a different approach. It did feel new, and everyone else started to jump in.
WWD: Long before quality customer service and “storytelling” became popular marketing tools, Boden had a 365-day return policy, a great sense of humor and engaging tone of voice. Why were you so early on those trends?
J.B.: We always had the idea you should treat a customer like a friend. A lot of people, historically, were very suspicious of direct retail. They would say, “Oh, what will happen if customers can’t try it on?” So we said, “We believe in our clothes.” Some people do abuse the 365-day policy, but on the whole it is the right thing to do. Having a distinct tone of voice was always key: It was very much about making the brand stand out. It was very important that we talk in an authentic way. There is more coming.
WWD: How easy was it to bolt online sales onto the catalogue business?
J.B.: In many ways it was very easy: We had the warehousing, the system, the call center, the photography and all of that expertise. The problem was the catalogue — it was so successful and we had such a well-oiled machine — and online is slightly different. It has been quite hard to change the business, and we still haven’t quite cracked it. Although most people order online, the catalogue itself draws a lot of business and still represents about two-thirds of sales.
WWD: Can you talk more specifically about the challenges of adding the online channel?
J.B.: It was more about our internal focus. We’ve corrected this now, but we originally put more focus on catalogue photography than on web photography. Also, the real buzzword in web sites is personalization, so basically when people log on they’re “served up” the types of images that are relevant to them. Online is about giving people more personal experiences. [The Boden team is working on a major transformation of the site].
WWD: You opened your first brick-and-mortar stores over the past two years on the King’s Road and at Westfield. Why did you wait so long? And why did you pick this moment when the British high street is in crisis?
J.B.: It is very fashionable to say the high street is all over, but the fact is that the majority of clothes shopping is still done in stores, and you have to be where your customers are. For us, that means stores, wholesale and direct sales. Everybody needs to be an omnichannel retailer, really. I also think you have to try everything, and then you work out what suits you best. Wholesale is a bit of a struggle for us, but I can’t complain. Things are pretty good, and we will continue to try lots of different things. There is a lot more to get right in retail, and we will keep trying.
WWD: There is much hand-wringing about there being too much merchandise on the market, too many brands and too much discounting. As a clothing brand today, how do you keep people coming back for more and also remain profitable?
J.B.: Women have a lot more choice today, and they want to wear more new things. When I started, over half the range carried over from season to season, now it is 15 percent, so people want newness. I think there is a deep-seated human need, a female need above all, to reinvent one’s self. Men do it in different ways: They want a new gadget or a new car or whatever. Women want to look great. It really makes you feel a million dollars to have the right product and I think that is quite a deep human need. There is always going to be the need to look great, and thank god for us there are plenty of people who value good quality, comfort and how something feels against the skin.
WWD: Can you talk about how you got started in the U.S. and why Boden resonates so much in that market where so many other British brands fail?
J.B.: We launched in the U.S. in 2002 because we noticed we had a lot of American customers finding their way to our site. Obviously there was the benefit of the shared language and shared values and that respect for British stuff. My attitude was, “Let’s give it a go, but don’t let it jeopardize the business.” At the time I said I did not want (the U.S.) to distract me from my main job.
We did it in a very shambolic way to start with. We tested it in a very small way, and it was quite obvious that there was demand there. Go to streets in the suburbs, in Brooklyn, Boston or Washington, and you see that people are actually very similar around the world. They have a very similar attitude to clothes and to life and everything is so international now. We all get the Internet, we all see the same things and the availability of fashion imagery has really made the world feel a lot more connected.
We are committed to growing in the U.S. and improving the service there. Our brand awareness in the U.K. among our target market is 60 percent, while in the U.S. it is 9 percent. There is a lot of scope for growth if we can find the right way to do it. Germany and America are both growing more than Britain, but I think in terms of the future, America remains our biggest opportunity.
WWD: Of late, you have seriously upped the fashion quotient of Boden’s women’s collections in particular. What was behind this decision, and has it been proving successful?
J.B.: We have always been very careful not to look like other brands that are doing pale imitations of what is going down the catwalk. The word was “style” rather than “fashion,” but in fact, we have been testing some more fashion-led products and they have been doing really well. We just go on giving the customer what she wants and if she wants that bit more fashion, then we will give her it.
There are some looks, which are very on-trend, which she doesn’t like. Our customer is not ready for certain trends because they aren’t very flattering. That asymmetric, very loose stuff, she doesn’t like that. She feels uncomfortable, and not very sexy. A lot of people will say, “I don’t look great in that dress. It is too flouncy, the neck is too high.” Sometimes you get the feeling that some of our competitors are designing for the fashion press — and for themselves — rather than for their customers.
WWD: What are some of the brands and retailers that pique your interest?
J.B.: It is a bit of a cliché, but I do think Zara is an incredible machine really. Every time you go into the stores you are quite pleasantly surprised by something that is new and exciting. Uniqlo is also pretty amazing. At the higher end you have got Gucci. It is great fun. In our price point there are the French brands that are quite good like Sézane and Maje. I don’t know how well they are doing, but they have lovely things.
WWD: What does 2019 — and beyond — hold for Boden?
J.B.: I think we need to crack brick-and-mortar, and our hands are full in America and Germany. Obviously we will be looking at Asia in due course. There is a lot more to do. The biggest opportunity is to grow our brand awareness in America. Overall it’s being really clear on what the customer wants and giving them it. It’s about getting that balance right between quality, style and fun — simple as that.
WWD: How and why have you remained an independent business after all these years?
J.B.: Although I am quite greedy, I am not that greedy. I never wanted the yacht. A lot of people sell out because they want this great big toy. On a more mundane level, there really is nothing I would rather do. People sell out because of this vision of this amazing life outside their business, and I never really believed that. I look at people who have retired and don’t do very much and they are not very happy on the whole.
This was a good investment, I believed in the future and it was paying me a nice salary. But also, from a personal point of view, it was not that I wanted to become a politician or a farmer. I nearly lost everything in the early years, my house was on the line, two years in it was very scary. After that, I thought I never want too much debt, because the banks could close it down. So we never had much debt.
WWD: Will you ever sell all, or part of, Boden?
J.B.: If you go public — and you’re answerable — you have got this terrible merry-go-round. Also, if you work in a private equity-run business, they are such monsters. They are very controlling and they tell you what you can and can’t do, and I wouldn’t last five minutes in that environment.
WWD: Do you have an exit plan?
J.B.: I have got three children, two of whom are quite interested in the business actually, so I have got a while to work this one out. The key thing is to find a job that you enjoy and that you are good at. If I started not to enjoy it, or I became rubbish at it, I would stop. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened yet.
WWD: Has Boden been difficult to expand without outside investment?
J.B.: We could borrow money quite easily if we wanted to, but I always felt that money can be a terrible distraction and you end up pissing it away, actually. We are pretty profitable, we can do everything — pretty much — that we need to do without raising outside money. I mean, we have no debt at all. We are investing a lot at the minute, so our profitability is depressed, but our underlying profitability is strong.
WWD: What do you like best about the day-to-day work, and what makes you proud?
J.B.: Seeing great styles and great photography makes me feel pretty proud, actually. The designers report to me, although they are on their own most of the time. This morning I was doing my charity work, yesterday afternoon I was looking at scarf designs for next winter. They suggested a couple of things, I knocked back about half of them and I said, “You are on the right track, I think.” I am quite a visual person. It is the one thing I am reluctant to delegate. Print and pattern are a big part of my life.
WWD: Have you ever made any fashion or design missteps?
J.B.: One thing I resisted were maxi dresses, and above all the jersey maxi dresses — I thought they looked cheap. I was a little bit nervous about jumpsuits initially, but they are fine now. There have been some styles that I have really pushed through on my own, but have had no support over. And they were successful. Some styles I pushed — and they were not successful.
WWD: As a businessperson — and a British native — what are your thoughts on Brexit?
J.B.: A no-deal Brexit would be horrendous for us: There would be a hit to profits because of the duties. All the Brexiteers say how easy trade would be under WTO regulations, but the WTO duty on clothing is 12 percent, so that is a massive amount to pay.
There would be significant delays in getting goods over to Germany, and if service to Germany is delayed by another two or three days, they just won’t buy from us. They’ll buy from German companies. Free trade has also meant that we source things from hundreds of different places, and for it to work, there has to be an easy flow of goods around the world.
WWD: How would you describe your management style?
J.B.: Oh, terrible. That’s why I don’t manage anybody. Entrepreneurs are terrible managers because we can be quite impatient and disruptive, and nobody has ever enjoyed being managed by me. I think they quite like working with me — they find me quite fun to be with — but I’ve never done an appraisal in my life. I leave that to other people. I just feel it’s my duty to try and bring a bit of fun and inspiration, rather than being a measured manager. So my style is more about making it fun, being authentic and making it safe for people to say what they think, and encouraging people to be robust about negative feedback as well as positive feedback.
Honesty is so important, and one of my worries for the next generation is that free speech is fundamentally being suppressed. You can’t say anything — and anybody can get upset about anything. I think plain speaking is a great thing to be able to do, and the great thing is to have a culture where anybody can speak up and no one is feeling scared.
WWD: Who were your mentors?
J.B.: I have had some incredible people working with me here over the years, the lovely Julian [Granville, formerly managing director of Boden and now executive chairman], who is amazing, and Jill [Easterbrook, Boden’s chief executive officer], who is also amazing. There are other directors, too, who have been unbelievable and who have worked so hard. And most of them are still here. I have learned from them and also from one of my bosses in the City, when I was at Warburg. I always think that in my stage of life you have three key pressures: Family, work and friends. On the whole, most people are only good at two of those, although this guy was good at all three. He had a great family, was bloody good at his work and had lots of friends.
James Dyson [the British inventor, industrial design engineer and founder of the eponymous company] impressed upon me the need to have informal, regular meetings with designers rather than big, showcase meetings. I don’t like presentations on the whole. I find that they kind of raise the temperature. I like quick and informal meetings. I just haven’t got the attention span. Just get on with it — that’s my thing. Glen Senk [the U.S. retail veteran], who is on our board, impressed upon me that it’s possible to be good at numbers and good creatively. There are not many people in the retail sector where I’ve come away thinking, “Oh my god, they’re amazing!” I would like to meet the guy who set up Zara [Amancio Ortega] and I’d loved to have met Arthur Ryan, who founded Primark.